That to me is precisely its odd strength. I am very resistant to message cinema. Heck, I am resistant to cinema that makes sense. But here is a very lo-fi, very blatant, very remedial film about these monks that floored me on the basis of its message. I can think of no film that so neatly captures the intellectual heart of Hauerwas, or Yoder, or Milbank, or any other of the theologians that have shaped my head over the past decade.
And that does so, not in the abstract, in the expression of intellectual ideas, but persuasively embodies those ideas in a lived experience in a context as messy, ambiguous and uncertain as the world we all live in. D'accord.
That's what give the film its power for me also.
The other questions are similar... they are about theological or political ideas spoken in the film, and I can offer whether I'm excited by those ideas or not. But again, we're not talking about aesthetics anymore.
Exactly. It's precisely the privileging of aesthetics, and even more the aesthetics of visuals over the aesthetics of narrative, that I resist.
I agree with M. that the "what it's about"/"how it's about it" framework has definite limits -- but if "how it's about it" is reduced to the purely visual, then it's not just limited, but flat-out wrong.
Certainly that's not
what Ebert meant by "how it's about it." In Ebert's thought, that phrase denotes not just the visuals, but a film's entire approach, attitude, sensibility toward its subject matter as conveyed in all aspects of the moviemaking process, including dialogue, plot structuring and other aspects of narrative, as well as acting, etc.
But the "how" of the presentation doesn't keep me awake thinking, "Wow, I'm just blown away by the way the director filmed this or shot this or juxtaposed this with this..."
I think this is where I fall back on the reply that if the film did these things it would not be more successful but less. I'm not saying the film couldn't be more successful, including more successful with filming and shooting and juxtaposing. But if it blew us away with these things, it would not be a greater film but a lesser one.
And here's another way to look at it: Most of what we're discussing are ideas that are openly spoken in the film. The dialogue of a film is an important aspect, but it is only one aspect.
Likewise pictures are only one aspect. A crucial aspect, arguably even more crucial than words (since you can have cinema without words, but you can't really have cinema without pictures). But the pictures are not necessarily more important than ideas. Any attempt to exalt the importance of pictures over ideas is going to run into trouble over films from The Birth of a Nation
to The Passion of the Christ
. There are things bigger than aesthetics, or, if you like, asthetics bigger than the purely artistic.
I called out ideas because they were easy to call out and because I think what a film is about is important (and indeed, as M points out, is not ultimately entirely separate from how it is about it). I could have pointed to the portrayal of the injured terrorist evoking Mantegna, which we've seen before with The Return
, but doing it with a terrorist is a further challenge. There's also the wonderful shot of Luc with his head pressed to the side of the Savior on the fresco, a holy image that becomes a new holy image on the screen uniting the Lord and the disciple.
I'm not saying these are "groundbreaking," or that they dazzle me with their challenging newness. I'm saying they make what I believe is true in the abstract real and concrete to me in immediate and challenging ways -- ways unmatched by any film I can think of.
If I were teaching a course on excellence in cinema, I would understand teaching Citizen Kane for all of the important breakthroughs and virtuosic cinematography, editing, composition, etc. I would definitely share Of Gods and Men for the purposes of theological discussion and "ministry," but on how many levels is it really standard-setting?
I agree that in a context such as a course on "excellence in filmmaking," which sets artificial constraints on our sphere of interest in a film, Of Gods
may have less to offer than some others. If I think about the film from that artificially limited perspective, it's less interesting to me.
But I am more than a film instructor, and even more than a picture-appreciating being. I am a human being, and a Christian. The film speaks profoundly to me as a human being and a Christian. Partly insofar as I am a picture-appreciating being, but only partly on that level.
When it comes to motion pictures, my interests are increasingly caught up in the pictures. They do things that a stage play version or a novel could not.
certainly does things that a stage play or novel can't. I don't quarrel with your verdict that the big-screen presentation doesn't necessarily do anything to which a decent-sized small screen can't do reasonable justice. The same is perforce true of Dekalog
. I don't think that automatically consigns a work to lesser status.